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The Way Ahead

"I personally believe that diversity is a part of excellence," says Chancellor Robert Coombe. "The finest intellectual climate is one that involves many different kinds of people." Photo: Michael Richmond

One year into his tenure as the University of Denver’s 17th chancellor, Robert Coombe sees quicksand on the trail ahead.

True, the trail is lushly lined with opportunity. After all, the institution is as healthy as it has ever been, boasting a muscular infrastructure, a solid operating budget and promising trends in everything from enrollment to student achievement.

“The traditional university would say, ‘Okay, this is our chance to be just like the universities that are above us in the rankings,” Coombe says. “That’s a trap,” he explains — one he is determined to avoid. “What we don’t want to do is become traditional.”

As Coombe sees it, American universities are entering a new era characterized by enormous challenges. Competitive economies are demanding that universities expand their outreach, educating not just the elites who can afford tuition but also those students at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. At the same time, the costs of educating students are on the rise.

What’s more, Coombe adds, the higher-education establishment is finding that traditional sources of non-tuition support are shrinking. For the last 50 years, universities have benefited from government largesse growing out of post-World War II priorities: defense, economic growth and public health, to name just a few. According to this model, the federal government attended to its priorities by funding and commissioning research, and by providing a financial aid infrastructure to ensure an educated populace.

“It’s a changing landscape,” Coombe says, noting that the government’s role in higher education is diminishing. In the future, universities will need to wean themselves from the federal budget and partner instead with the private sector — with foundations and corporations attempting to address society’s major challenges, whether economic, environmental, medical or humanitarian.

While other institutions may find this paradigm shift uncomfortable, if not impossible, Coombe believes DU is uniquely positioned to capitalize on this change and respond to unforeseen changes. Along the way, DU may well show other universities how to thrive in this change-charged environment.

“I see DU as the change agent. If there is an institution that is open-minded enough to think about new measures of quality related to these issues, boy is that us,” says Coombe, who has seen the University adapt, flounder and reinvent itself during his 25 years at DU. “The fact that we have had to focus on operations in order to survive, the fact that we have had to think about being different as an advantage … the kinds of things we have done in the last several years — that is why we are positioned to be a change agent.” Among the out-of-the-box initiatives and programs that have primed DU for that role: the Hyde Interview, which has fundamentally altered how students are admitted to DU; the Cherrington Global Scholars program, which made study abroad a defining experience for undergraduates; the many elements of the Marsico Initiative; and assorted academic offerings in business and the sciences that respond to societal and corporate needs.


Direct impact

Coombe planted his roots at DU in 1981 when he joined the faculty as an assistant professor of chemistry. Prior, he had earned a PhD in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, completed postdoctoral work at the University of Toronto and enjoyed a stint with the corporate research laboratory for Rockwell International. Until last year, when the full demands of his new job prompted him to realign priorities, he ran a lab conducting research into the molecular dynamics of energetic chemical systems — research with applications in the development of new laser systems and in the semiconductor industry.

Although the classroom and lab kept Coombe busy, he also relished the opportunity to think deeply about higher education’s needs and challenges. Eager to test and implement his ideas, he assumed a number of leadership positions — as acting dean of graduate studies, as chair of the chemistry department and eventually as dean of what was then the Division of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering. In 2001, Coombe was appointed provost, a position that groomed him for the big-picture thinking required of a chancellor. “The part I liked best was the synthesis of academic and fiscal planning,” he says.

Coombe’s diverse experiences on campus, coupled with a scientific mindset that meshes creativity and analytical acumen, provide him a framework for envisioning a distinctive DU — one that dedicates its resources to the public good. “How is this institution as a whole going to have an impact on the lives of all those people out there?” he asks. “How do we ensure that the intellectual capital that resides at the University has a direct impact? … Could we be an institution that has a far greater impact on the country, on the world? That is what occupies my days.”

When discussing DU’s role in the larger world, Coombe draws his vocabulary right out of the chemistry lab. Ideas “percolate” and “bubble” as though they were simmering on so many Bunsen burners. They then “spill out” like lava into the larger community, permeating public life and fusing into initiatives and enterprises that make the world a better place. The DU of Coombe’s vision is a “hive” of intellectual activity with lots of cross-pollination to ensure a bountiful mix of problem-solving ideas.

Emphasis on problem solving. “Great universities are that because they attack the great problems that face society,” Coombe says.

For this vision to become reality, for the hive to come fully alive, Coombe faces a significant challenge: building the institution’s endowment so that it can attract a diverse population of students and faculty. Currently, he explains, DU lacks the resources to close what he calls the “need gap” in financial aid — in other words, the amount of money a student must pay to attend DU after financial aid is awarded. For too many families, that sum is prohibitive, rendering a DU education out of reach. While the students miss out on the DU experience, he says, DU misses out on the ideas and perspectives they would bring to campus.

And that’s troubling. “I personally believe that diversity is a part of excellence,” Coombe says. “The finest intellectual climate is one that involves many different kinds of people — people from a host of different backgrounds who bring different kinds of knowledge to the table.” When that’s present, he adds, “The level of everybody’s thinking goes way up.”

Culture of experimentation

These ideas resonate with a faculty heavily invested in encouraging critical thinking, creative problem solving and cross-disciplinary collaboration. “The faculty understands that Bob Coombe is one of us, with a history in academia that informs his leadership of this university,” says Cathryn Potter, an associate professor of social work and recent past president of the Faculty Senate. Coombe’s emphasis on building the endowment, deepening campus diversity and serving the public good “are directly supportive of our intellectual culture and academic reputation,” she adds.

Coombe has begun traveling far and wide to meet with alumni, government officials and business leaders and to communicate his passion for the University’s distinctive approach to higher education. One thing he makes clear: Building the endowment, and thus diversity on campus, does more than benefit DU. It also changes individual lives. It provides opportunities to students whose gifts and talents might otherwise go uncultivated. In doing so, it changes society.

Coombe knows just how transformative a superior education can be. A product of Denver Public Schools, he was always encouraged to explore, experiment and tackle new challenges, whether physical or intellectual. At Lincoln High School, he was a member of the 1966 city championship wrestling team, and throughout his years in public school, he studied art and music, beginning on a trombone he inherited from a great uncle. (Six years ago, he took up the cello after his wife, DU chemistry professor and violinist Julanna Gilbert, tucked a rented instrument under the Christmas tree. Today, the couple makes up two-thirds of a trio that occasionally performs for small groups.)

“I wasn’t ever really super directed to science,” he recalls. “When I was growing up I was interested in all different kinds of things. I remember one Christmas my brother got the chemistry set. Of course, he’s the lawyer today. By the time I got into high school, I was pretty good at math and science, but when I went to college, it wasn’t as though I said, ‘I’m going to do science.'”

In fact, once he arrived at Williams College in Massachusetts, Coombe continued on the course set in Denver, pursuing a broad menu of interests. Although he chose to major in chemistry, he minored in history and art. Coombe’s fondness for his two minors could have easily diverted him down a different career path. But then fate intervened and plopped him inside a research lab.

During his sophomore year, Williams launched a four-one-four academic calendar, in which students took four courses in the fall, one intensive course during January, and four more courses in the spring. “My first winter study period, I did a research project in chemistry,” Coombe says. “If there ever was a turning point, that was it.”

His project involved measuring the magnetic properties of a series of water complexes of nickel. These were, he acknowledges, “difficult and somewhat tedious measurements.” But as his research progressed, Coombe became intrigued by subtle color changes in the water complexes and decided he wanted to redirect his efforts and begin working through the spectroscopy of these complexes. Excited about this prospect, Coombe approached his professor and proposed a project change.

“To this day, I remember the look on his face. He said, ‘That’s a good idea.'” For Coombe, those words liberated the possibilities and unleashed his creativity. “I came out of that with a sense that, wow, I can have an original idea and work through it. I can think through a problem and act on it. It was a very seductive thing.”

What’s more, it wasn’t the kind of experience that occurs in a typical classroom setting. “The traditional approach was just memorizing all this stuff, and that wasn’t how my mind worked,” he says. With his own educational experiences as a case study, Coombe has long championed the concept of interactive learning, of supplementing textbook knowledge through hands-on experiences.

He also has championed a culture of experimentation. As a scientist and as a chancellor, he says, he’s willing to test ideas that “seem completely off the wall.” For a university already accustomed to the new and different, Coombe’s chancellorship promises both continuity and challenge. It won’t, he insists, veer into the quicksand of complacency. “We’ve been given the opportunity to do something of great significance here,” he says, “and we are going to do it.”

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